“Intimate Apparel” wears well. The Pasadena Playhouse revival of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning 2003 drama, set at the turn of the century, boasts first and foremost a luminous lead performance by Vanessa Williams. In addition, artistic director Sheldon Epps’ elegant production successfully walks that fine line between stiffness and overemotionality. Depictions of this period are often too mannered for words, but Epps brings out the hearts beating and aching beneath all those starched shirtfronts.
Nottage’s forte is memorializing the historically forgotten, whether it be the nameless victims of tribal violence in her Pulitzer honoree “Ruined,” or the Hollywood sidekicks of color brought front and center in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” Here, a projection identifies our current heroine (Williams) as “Unidentified Black Seamstress c. 1905,” but by the end of this vibrant drama she is not merely identified but made whole, real and endearing.
Esther is something of a cousin to Celie in Alice Walker’s more or less contemporaneous “The Color Purple.” Both are illiterate country women with a good heart, a solid set of domestic skills and a sense of life’s having chopped off something vital.
Though Celie starts out as credulous and whipped, we meet Esther at 35 in full command of her craft, servicing a stable clientele and with plenty of money saved up for her own beauty shop one day. Yet Williams exquisitely, believably balances this independent woman’s determination with the tremulous fear no man will ever love or want her.
When she starts receiving faraway letters from a single, well-spoken gentleman (David St. Louis) working to build the Panama Canal, we and she are eager for her to take the bait and hope for the best upon his stateside return. But how does the saying go: Be careful what you wish for? The stage is set for heartbreak, with Epps carefully shaping the performances and rhythms so Esther’s crises remain piercing but never maudlin.
This “Apparel” isn’t seamless. Angel Reda takes a superficially giddy approach to one of Esther’s clients, an unhappily married secret drinker who can never quite decide where propriety’s lines should be drawn. The character is written with multiple layers, but the emotions we sense she’s going through just don’t register enough in Reda’s face and manner.
Meanwhile, Dawnn Lewis is overconscious of the comedy relief function of Esther’s busybody landlady. Lewis garners laughs by playing to the crowd, but at a price: When she pulls off some subtler, more delicate effects in act two, the role’s two halves don’t mesh.
Others, however, take refreshingly uncliched approaches to familiar types: Kristy Johnson as an amoral prostitute whose loyalty has limits; Adam J. Smith as a Jewish fabric supplier, bonding with Esther through their shared outsider status; and St. Louis, whose total physicalization and concentration clearly communicate fierce drive even when his Barbados accent proves unintelligible.
Leah Piehl’s authentic costumes appear genuinely lived in, appropriately enough for a play hinging so much on how clothes make the man, or woman. They also reinforce the sense of period style established by Steven Cahill’s compilation of Scott Joplin piano rags. At last divorced from the jolly context of “The Sting,” melodies like “Solace” are free to haunt us once again with their boundless melancholy.